Since the National Bureau of Statistics of China (NBS) started to publish the country’s monthly unemployment rate in January 2018, the unemployment rate for young urban workers aged 16-24 (including migrant workers living in urban areas) over the past five years has increased from 11% in January 2018 to 19.9% in July 2022, then decreased slightly to 18.1% in February 2023.
When Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966, he mobilized college, middle and high school students to be the vanguard revolutionaries known as the “Red Guards” to destroy the country’s bureaucratic system, or the “capitalist-roaders,” as well as the “five black categories.” Schools closed and colleges ceased to admit students. By 1967, violent fighting broke out among factions of Red Guards. By the fall of 1968, Mao wanted to resume some degree of normalcy and rein in the political fanaticism, but the economy had been wrecked and there were no jobs for young people. In December 1968, Mao ordered urban students who had graduated from secondary schools in 1966, 1967, and 1968 to be “sent up to the mountains and down to the countryside” (上山下乡). Millions of youth from large urban centers such as Shanghai and Beijing were sent to China’s remote provinces and backwater regions. In the years that followed, the “send-down” policy was expanded nationwide and wasn’t terminated until 1978.
Contrary to the image popularized by the state media and influencers such as Li Ziqi (李子柒), the Chinese countryside is no idyllic paradise. On the contrary, China’s two-tier urban vs. rural household registration system has long functioned as a veritable caste structure that treats more than half of the population as second-class citizens with little access to health and social benefits; until roughly three decades ago, rural Chinese wholly lacked the freedom to seek jobs or live in cities. During the 40 years of reform and opening up, rural labor has built roads, bridges and buildings, and manned factories humming all over China. Yet according to former premier Li Keqiang, there are still 600 million Chinese whose monthly income is below 1,000 yuan (about USD$150). For rural parents, the most important achievement of sending their children to college is that their offspring will forever be freed from the curse of being in the countryside. Young rural Chinese, especially those with college degrees, also find themselves under considerable pressure to make it in the cities, rather than go back to the countryside and become a “disgrace” to their families.